When Kids Molest Kids

This is not just kids saying, "Show me yours and I'll show you mine." We're talking about 5-year-olds that initiate oral copulation, 9-year-olds that sodomize ...


For years it was thought that the deadly cycle of sex abuse began and ended with adult offenders who themselves had been molested as children. Now it looks as if only half the story has been told. The long unacknowledged truth is that there is a large population of molested children in this country who turn around, at startlingly tender ages, and become child molesters themselves. Almost before they can be gathered in for healing as victims, they inflict their terrible wound on others. No one knows for sure how many such young victim-victimizers there are. But as more and more cases come to light, experts speculate they number in the thousands-and even that estimate may be conservative.

That the problem went unrecognized for so long is not surprising to psychologists. Parents of young molesters are incredulous when confronted with their children's behavior. "It's too frightening for most people to believe these kids are forming a pattern of abusing other kids as early as 3, 4 and 5," says Sandra Ballester, who heads SPARK (Support Program for Abuse Reactive Kids), which treats child molesters under the age of 12 at Children's Institute International in Los Angeles.

"Frightening" may be putting it mildly: the stories SPARK hears are nothing less than horrific. There is 10-year-old Rickie, who used toilet-paper rolls to sodomize his 4- and 5-year-old sisters-not long after he himself had been sodomized by a neighbor. There is Danny, consigned at 6 to a group residential home for abusing his younger half sister and half brother. Sent home a few years later, he pulled a neighbor's 3-year-old into the garage, where he sodomized him and forced him to perform oral sex. As it turned out, Danny himself had been sexually abused by at least four adults, including his own mother, his grandmother and his uncles.

In the bleakly burgeoning annals of this field, every case seems worse than the one before. But it may be hard to find a more unsettling account than that of the two blond, blue-eyed, cherubic-looking twin sisters, 6, who one day undressed their infant cousin and bit his penis until it was nearly severed. Therapists at SPARK, where the girls were treated, learned that a year earlier, they had been forced to have oral sex with an uncle. And years before that, the twins' and the infant's mothers, who are sisters, had both been molested by their own father-who killed himself when the story came out.

SPARK's Ballester is one of the cadre of therapists, child psychologists, social workers and counselors looking for a way to interrupt this terrible cycle of sex abuse. Around 90 percent of the young abusers in her program had been molested themselves before repeating the offense on others. The best evidence is that, like adult rape victims, children experience intolerable feelings of helplessness while being forcibly defiled. Overwhelmed by a need to set the world right again, they may take on the identity of the aggressor. "That's their way of regaining a sense of power and control," says Frederique Pierre, therapist for the 6-to 9-year-old boys group at SPARK.

Specialized treatment for young molesters became available only a few years ago. Until then, they were ostracized by school officials and sometimes even their own distraught parents. Pyschologist William Friedrich, a consultant at the Mayo Clinic, recalls the mother of a boy who molested two girls after being molested by two older boys asking: "He's not gay, Doc, is he? He does it with girls, doesn't he?" Even now there are fewer than 25 programs nationwide specifically designed for victim-victimizers. "We face a problem trying to fit children who molest children into pre-existing systems that never contemplated the problem," says Alison Stickrod Gray, a juvenile specialist who recently sponsored the first national conference on young child molesters.

The SPARK program began almost accidentally when Kee MacFarlane, director of the child sexual-abuse center at Children's Institute International, tried to get help for an 11-year-old who had sodomized a 4-year-old boy in a foster home. "There was no treatment for that age," recalls MacFarlane. "And, of course, it turned out that the 11-year-old had been sodomized by his father, which was why he was in a foster home." With that boy and two other young patients, MacFarlane formed the nucleus of a program that now includes four different age groups along with one for parents.

SPARK employs such novel techniques as "monster therapy," geared toward children 5 to 8 years old. The children are told that they are not evil, but that their molesting behavior is a monster-represented through puppets and stuffed animals-that must be vanquished. Therapists must walk a fine line, says Carolyn Cunningham, coauthor (with MacFarlane) of "When Children Molest Children." "The idea is, make them accountable, but don't judge them as bad people," she observes. "You have to separate who they are from what they did." Other programs that have since sprung up deal in more concrete terms or use their own imagery. At Haven, a family crisis center in Pontiac, Mich., children are given Hula Hoops with the stipulation that when a child is inside one, no person may violate his or her space.

Therapists say they are struck by a chilling absence of empathy in many child molesters-"almost like a developmental gap," says MacFarlane. Any feeling for their victims, apparently, is swallowed up in the molesters' own need to act out profound hurt and anger. MacFarlane recalls asking the golden-haired twin molesters: "Remember how you felt when this happened to you? How do you think that baby felt when you hurt him?" Their reaction, she reports, "was sort of a shrug. Even at 6 they had started this process of distancing themselves."

Not all young molesters are victims of sexual abuse. And whether or not they become molesters may depend on what else is going on in their lives. Many are from so-called chaotic families: along with experiencing alcoholism, drug abuse and divorce, their parents have been abused themselves. A study of 200 young molesters by John Hunter, clinical director of the Pines Treatment Center for juvenile sex offenders in Portsmouth, Va., found high percentages of separated parents, physical or sexual abuse, neglect and alcoholism.

Potential molesters are not always easy to identify. While the majority of young molesters are boys, clinicians report that they are beginning to see more girls. At SPARK, the clientele is half male and half female. Therapists advise parents to pay attention to more than ordinary sexual curiosity in children. Masturbation is a normal outlet for children's aggressions even in infancy, yet when it becomes obsessive it may be a warning of something going out of control. Sexual play between children is also no cause for alarm. "But more than a two-year age difference say, a 7-year-old with a 4-year-old--alerts us that this is something more than experimentation," says Lisa Hamburg, a therapist at Michigan's Haven. The real problem, however, is that parents often refuse to believe what they're seeing. Sometimes, sex between siblings will continue with only an occasional admonition from their parents.

Treatment programs report mixed results with young molesters. Generally they achieve considerable success over a year or two. But once patients are dismissed, little follow-up data is available. Until now, in fact, therapists working with molesters have had to create their own approaches as they went along, usually basing them on treatment of older offenders. There are still too few treatment facilities or other resources for handling these deeply troubled children-and the danger is that, unchecked, they will go on molesting. Studies show that 58 percent of adult sexual offenders report having first begun "sexually acting out" as juveniles or adolescents. The Pines Center's Hunter says the hardest part of his job is seeing children yanked from his program because their court-ordained funding ran out.

Around the country, there is an unheeded clamor for such community services--for ex-drug addicts who slip back into the drug culture, for released mental patients who end up among the homeless. But what about these already damaged young molesters, destined, in the absence of timely help, for who knows what sort of bent lives? Even in the uproarious din of unmet social needs, some ought to cry out louder than others.

Photos: Ways of hewing: A Pines patient renders her heart, Ballester wields a 'monster,' Haven staffer protects her space (BOB CRANDALL-PICTURE GROUP; STEVE GOLDSTEIN; PETER YATES-SABA)

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